Monday, October 18, 2010

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Part Walker Percy, part Denis Johnson, part Dave Eggers, this remarkable novel is one of the most thought-provoking I've read in recent years. It develops that stunning late modern theme: the inauthenticity of our lives, and the desire for the ability (perhaps) to more fully inhabit the momentary. OR it's about fiction, our need for mimesis, but then how it fails us because its outcomes are too controlled. OR it's about how failure to accept that life is an untidy succession of remainders leads to violence. I can't decide. I need to think about it much more, the sign of a good book.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most erudite writers I have ever encountered. She defines what it means to be an original thinker. If you have been bothered, as I have been, by the tone that some writers who write about science and bioethics take, read this book. She identifies a whole range of "parascientific" writers who employ a "hermeneutic of condescension" to bully people into thinking that all religion is quackery. As usual, Robinson's sentences are all gems. This book is worth owning.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Echo Maker

I cannot think of a fiction writer who writes more effectively about the implications of science and technology than Richard Powers. I finally read his novel The Echo Maker, and while not perfect, it is certainly worth reading. He understands the implications of research by Oliver Sacks and the like: that humanity may be more about our neurons than we would like to believe. But he never reduces the self to neurons; he understands that narratives of the self are complex. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others, the stories we live by: it is not always about whether they are true or not, but how true they ring to us. We are formed by our experiences and how they form and re-form our brains. This is true, and Powers understands that this doesn't necessarily mean that there is no God or no such thing as love.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Lathe of Heaven

I have just finished Ursula Le Guin's interesting novel, The Lathe of Heaven. It is as curious an exploration of free will that you will ever find--sort of. What if your dreams really could change reality? Would some people try to control your dreams and control the world? Le Guin clearly sees such people as humanity's biggest danger. Le Guin's heroes end up being the non-heroes, the everymen, in this case: George Orr. He represents the either/or of being: we are all either this or that, but don't try to force anything. Just let it be. Life is full of change and miraculous variety, and this comes with suffering and evil. It's a part of the package.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Our Cylons, Ourselves

Click on the link to read my article on the ending of Battlestar Galactica, one of the great TV series in recent years. I'm waiting for the new episodes of "Caprica" to go on hulu...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Idiosyncratic intellectuals

If you are looking for a terrific book that explains how four intellectuals could move from different kinds of idealism to uniquely American pragmatism, read this one by Louis Menand. Menand is a wonderful writer, and this book gave me a sense of how important Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey were in America.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Even more grace...

I now believe that I can say with certainty that I have never read a fiction writer who understands and depicts grace better than Marilynne Robinson. I already thought that Gilead was an amazing achievement, and then she managed the retell that story, in some ways even more powerfully, in Home. To boil it down, grace is loving people for who they are no matter how difficult or costly it is, believing for the best, even hoping for it, but not rejecting the person when the best is not forthcoming. We can all know that definition, but to tell a beautiful and believable story about it is another thing.

Here's another way to put it: Robinson understands that it was Jesus who told one of the greatest stories ever told: the parable of the prodigal son. Both of these novels expand on this most flexible of parables, interposing different older brothers, fathers, sons, and so on. In Home, the older brother is actually a younger sister, Glory, who learns to love the brother she had only detested. And the father here is Jack's father, Robert Boughton, the declining minister who has spent twenty years waiting for the return of his prodigal son. And he is slipping away, mentally, but has more moments of complete self possession than not, and when Glory says he should be kind to Jack (which he has been throughout), he says:

“’Kinder to him! I thanked God for him every day of his life, no matter how much grief, how much sorrow—and at the end of it all there is only more grief, more sorrow, and his life will go on that way, no help for it now. You see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn’t yours to keep or to protect. And if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it’s just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was—‘ He said, ‘It’s like watching a child die in your arms.’ He looked at Jack. ‘Which I have done.’” I do not know a single person who has a child who would not weep at these lines, coming when they do in the novel. And that’s where the skill of this novelist lies.

Can it be that I have now read two novels in which the climactic action is the most subtle and understated of all things, the blessing and calling “good” a man who has spent his whole life running from home? Yes. Wow.